Laptops Suck (or Why I Might Get a New MacBook Air)
TL;DR: Watch this video by Wolfgang's Channel. It covers just about everything I talk about in this post, including the negative aspects of the M1 MacBook Air, minus the personal context and rant about modern laptops.
If you’ve been a part of the computing industry in almost any aspect for a while, you’ll no doubt know about the trend of laptops becoming worse as time goes on. What used to be upgradable components became soldered, removable batteries became internalized and eventually glued in, and build quality decreased year over year. Nowadays, one seems to have two choices in the PC laptop market: buy a cheap, creaky mess of plastic with low-performance internals, or buy a possibly well-built yet overpriced laptop that may perform well, but does so at the cost of noise and usually battery life.
Frankly, the only ones offering a viable alternative to this mess is Apple.
Yep, you heard me right.
Apple used to be just as bad as the rest: you used to get an overheating, horrendously overpriced (a fully-specced 16” MacBook Pro would run you $4,000 USD!) laptop with a terrible keyboard, but with their M1 chip this has changed completely. You can now get a laptop that not only has outstanding build quality, all-day battery life, an excellent screen, a great keyboard, and desktop-level performance, but at half the price of comparable PC laptops while also being fanless.
If that hasn’t yet convinced you, keep reading.
Price to Performance
I think we can all agree that Macs had pretty terrible price to performance when they used Intel processors. Given that a 2020 base model MacBook Air was $999 USD yet had a CPU that fared not much better than my current Lenovo Thinkpad T420s in benchmarks and overheated so fast you couldn’t even get remotely close to its full performance… yeah, that was pretty bad. However, this has completely changed with the M1. Now we have a $999 laptop with performance comparable to many Ryzen desktop systems that sips power and, yes will heat up if you’re doing heavy tasks, but won’t take massive hits to performance just because it can’t handle the heat.
In the image above, the M1 is compared to the Ryzen 5 1600 (the same CPU I have in my desktop computer from 2017), and the Ryzen 5 3600X, Ryzen 5 5600X, and Ryzen 9 5950X. This benchmark clocks the M1 chip at being overall faster than the Ryzen 5 1600, and even still beating the Ryzen 9 5950X in single-core computations (though, of course, the 32 threads in the 5950X means it’s much better at multi-threaded stuff than the M1 with its 8). That means this mobile CPU which can fit in a fanless system and draws a meagre 15.1 Watts is more powerful than a 65 Watt TDP desktop CPU from 2017 and 2018 as well as competitive in single-core tasks with even recent Ryzen CPUs.
Further videos on the internet comparing performance such as this video from LTT and this video from Wolfgang’s Channel shows that, while the M1 trades blows with its AMD and Intel counterparts in some cases, it drastically outperforms almost all of the competition. For most of what I will be doing with the PC, the M1 Air absolutely blows my existing computers out of the water in terms of performance for less than the amount of money I spent on my desktop system in 2017 and in a—I can’t stress this enough—fanless laptop.
Build Quality and Keyboard
Macs tend to have excellent physical build quality. There is little to no flex of the chassis when typing on the keyboard, the screen doesn’t wobble when you adjust it or while you’re typing, and you can hold the laptop by a corner without creaking plastic noises. Since they switched to their Magic Keyboard™®© from their utter disaster the Butterfly Keyboard™®©, their keyboards also feel very nice to type on again and won’t spontaneously break from normal usage.
According to a friend of mine who switched from a Thinkpad X1 Carbon Gen. 6 to an M1 MacBook Air, the keyboard is miles better than not only that, but also Cherry MX switches. According to the aforementioned video from Wolfgang’s Channel, the keyboard is not as good as his Thinkpad X1 Carbon’s. So, while it does seem to be a matter of personal preference, if this keyboard is anything like their early 2010s MacBook keyboards (a keyboard I have actually used) then it will feel, to me, even better than even my T420s keyboard.
I know I keep going on about how the Air is fanless, but that’s actually something I would really like to have in a laptop. My current T420s is hot and loud and it really shows it. Just sitting on the desktop, at idle, the CPU is at about 45°C with the fan audible. When I’m browsing the web, it easily spikes to 60% or 80% utilization, and it’s not uncommon for the CPU to hit 85°C and the fan to be going full-speed if I’m flipping back and forth between tabs or on any particularly heavy tabs (yes, I’ve cleaned out and re-pasted this computer… twice). This is such a problem that my laptop will overheat if I have it on my lap without wearing long pants (i.e. the bottom of the laptop is touching my legs) for an extended period of time and the amount of heat put out by this machine has even bothered people who sit next to me as I use my computer. Modern laptops might be better, but they’re still annoyingly noisy when doing anything intensive.
Having a fanless laptop will certainly be a luxury. When using my laptop on the couch or in bed, I won’t have to worry about whether or not the fans can breathe, I won’t have to worry about the fan noise of my laptop or the blast of heat shooting out the side annoying anybody near me, and I won’t have to worry about cleaning out the computer every two to three years just to keep it running well.
Since Apple released their Retina™®© displays, they have been known for making stunningly good displays. They continue this trend with the M1 MacBooks by putting a 2560x1600 (that’s a 16:10 display ratio, much nicer than 16:9 for productivity), in a 13.3” screen for a wonderfully crisp 227 PPI. Not only will this be way better than my current 1600x900 display in a 14” screen, it will also be far better than the 1920x1080 displays one could normally get on competing laptops (without spending out a lot more money).
A good screen with sharp text is something I’ve wanted for a long time since using 4K 27” displays at work and since I read this blog post by Nikita on tonsky.me about better monitors. It makes a huge difference, especially for those who work primarily with text (me) in terms of comfort and clarity.
One thing that Apple has pretty much always been good at is jamming massive batteries into their laptops. If I had to guess based on pictures of internals, more than 50% of the internal space of a MacBook is taken up by batteries. This gives them battery lifetimes often much greater than competing laptops of similar performance. In the case of the M1, this is dialed up to the maximum because they combined their regular massive battery capacity with a chip that sips power. One can easily go a full day using their M1 MacBook without needing to charge their laptop. This is a huge upgrade from my Thinkpad which gets about 1 hour of battery life on a replacement battery purchased just one year ago (turns out that having a CPU that gets hit with regular near-100% utilization is not great for battery life).
I know a lot of Linux and Windows users look at MacOS and think: “How could anybody use that!?” I know, I used to be one of them. At work when I got a Mac (a 2013 Mac Pro, to be precise) I was just endlessly frustrated at how MacOS felt. In reality, I just had a closed mind and wanted to hate it, so I did. Of course, a completely different operating system and desktop environment requires some effort to learn and get used to; exactly what we tell people switching over from Windows to Linux.
In reality, MacOS is a competent *nix system. It’s based on Darwin BSD, has zsh as a default shell—with others also installed, has its own package manager homebrew, and has a perfectly competent terminal emulator. In reality, I can do everything I would want to do on my computer on MacOS without having to go through the hoops required on Windows.
Not to mention, my printer+scanner will actually work without endless fiddling or needing to reboot into Windows.
But It’s Apple!!!
Yeah, I know. Apple is not a good company. They are consistently against right to repair, lock down the upgradablilty and repairability of their products, and the majority of the operating system is proprietary (though, it’s worth noting that they’re still far better than Microsoft when it comes to their open source efforts, having made and released WebKit, CUPS, Bonjour, and more).
But this isn’t much different than most of the PC manufacturers. With many modern laptops you are quite limited in terms of what you can upgrade. For most, you can upgrade the SSD and the RAM and that’s about it. Many parts for discontinued laptops are also hard to come by or expensive, unless they were insanely popular.
It’s also worth noting that, in the case of the M1, you can’t upgrade the RAM because it is a system-on-chip (SoC) design similar to how the Pinebook and most ARM-based computers are built. However, that’s not really an issue since MacOS handles low memory conditions very well and I personally have no need for more than 16GB of RAM. I haven’t needed more than 16GB of RAM for half a decade and I don’t see that changing anytime soon given that I routinely use less than 4GB on my workstations.
So, if I’m looking for a high quality, performant laptop for a good price then what are my other options in today’s market?
If I really want a fanless design I could either get a Chromebook or a Microsoft Surface. The Chromebooks universally suffer from terrible build quality or awful performance and the Surface laptops might be quite good (relatively speaking), but then I’m stuck with a product locked down by Microsoft and I much prefer MacOS to Windows. Surface computers also suffer from exactly the same repairability issues as Apple computers.
If I want something that does perform well and is well-built then I suppose I could go with a Dell XPS. They are “the MacBooks of the PCs” in terms of their build quality after all. But they’re also over twice the price as the M1 Air with worse performance and they can get very loud when doing intensive tasks like compiling software. If you’re thinking: “Why not get a Thinkpad,” it’s because modern Thinkpads have terrible build quality and are also monumentally more expensive than these new MacBooks for the performance you get. They suffer from the same problems as the XPS but aren’t even well-built.
Finally, in terms of a decent laptop that is repairable and upgradable, there is the new Framework laptop. While this does seem quite promising, it’s hot (it has an Intel processor) and doesn’t offer anywhere near the price to performance of these new MacBooks (once again, it has an Intel processor), though they are at least a strong competitor. The build quality, while decent, is also still lacking compared to Apple.
All in all, the pros of an M1 MacBook Air far outweigh the cons. Let’s go over them:
- Fanless - It’s silent and no need to worry about airflow or cleaning
- Excellent build quality - Not a plastic piece of e-waste (looking at you, Clevo chassis-resellers)
- Great battery life - Easily all-day battery life, even when using it intensively
- Good keyboard - Something that I’ll actually enjoy typing on when I’m away from home
- Outstanding Performance - Competitive with Ryzen 7 2700s in multi-core, and the latest Ryzen processors in single-core performance
- No T2 Chip - The M1 computers no longer have the annoying T2 chip, so other OSes could conceivably be installed in the future
- Unbeatable Price - Competing laptops are twice the price or more, for worse performance, build quality, noise, or a combination of those
- No Touchbar - I don’t like the touchbar, so I’m glad the Air doesn’t have it
- Thin as heck - It’s a laptop as powerful as a desktop, thinner than the screen on my T420s
And what about the cons:
- Apple - They’re a bad company, and it doesn’t make me feel good to buy something from them
- Non-replaceable SSD - The SSD could wear out and you can’t easily replace them which would render the computer useless, but this probably won’t matter in the lifetime of the device, since one would have to write terabytes of data to their SSD each day to even come close to wearing it out in a couple of years.
I’ve never owned a Mac (or any Apple product, for that matter). I currently own a T420s because I like the aesthetics and keyboards of old Thinkpads but, honestly, it’s just not cutting it anymore. A decade old computer is finally starting to show its age and it’s time for an upgrade. When nearly every other option on the market (including recent second-hand laptops) aside from the M1 Macs kinda suck, well, I’m going to choose the best option for the money I have and right now that looks like it’s the M1 MacBook Air.